Actor RJ Mitte as Walter Jr, seen standing with his arm braces.

Lack of representation in fiction: Why is the disabled character always a cisgender, heterosexual, white man?

In fostering understanding and empathy towards marginalised groups, media representation is one of the most important tools at our disposal. Most people consume media in some form, through books, tv shows, film and comics and other types of media. Through this we learn about the world around us and the people in it from a very young age. Portraying marginalised groups accurately and sympathetically can remove some of the prejudice surrounding them, so including these characters is paramount. Disabled people are one of the groups who are still lacking accurate and respectful representation in the media.

There have been some major disabled characters in the past few years; Artie Abrams (Glee), Hermann Gottlieb (Pacific Rim), Walter Jr.(Breaking Bad), Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones), Bran Stark (Game of Thrones), Professor Xavier (X-Men), Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games) and Hiccup (How To Train Your Dragon) are among the most significant and well known. These characters all feature in popular films and TV shows and are very important for disabled representation.

These issues become invisible and seemingly non-existent in the media, where disabled people are given a lot of privilege in order to ignore the varied experiences of disabled people.

There’s just one problem: they’re only representing one group of disabled people; the white cisgender heterosexual men. Disabled people are more often than not in poverty, and as such are often people of colour, part of the LGBTQIAP+ community, and women, and yet the media continues to show the above characters as the norm for both abled and disabled people. This creates a number of problems.

Firstly, it alienates disabled people who are part of other marginalised groups. It can already be extremely difficult to find good representation of characters who are gay, trans, people of colour, women and part of other oppressed groups. Trying to find a disabled bisexual woman can be almost impossible in mainstream media and yet these women exist and are being denied any representation of themselves in fiction. This can lead people to feel isolated, alienated or as if who they are is wrong.

In addition, it presents an illusion of accurate representation of disabled people, leaving the abled population ignorant to issues like the intersecting problems of being disabled and having a womb, such as reproductive rights, especially in regards to the fact that some disabled people, especially the mentally disabled, are sterilised without consent so that they cannot have children. Or being disabled and black and having your learning disabilities ignored because black children are assumed to be unintelligent or troublemaking by the education system. These issues become invisible and seemingly non-existent in the media, where disabled people are given a lot of privilege in order to ignore the varied experiences of disabled people.

There’s something even more harrowing about this group of characters. Only two of them are actually roles performed by disabled actors. Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) and R J Mitte (Walter Jr.) are both disabled in the same way as their characters; however, the other actors are all able-bodied, despite playing disabled characters. By doing this, the shows and films are denying roles to disabled actors.

Able-bodied roles are rarely given to disabled actors and so the only opportunity many disabled actors have is the tiny amount of disabled characters, of which it is rare to even get one who is a main character in an ensemble TV show. With the casting of able-bodied actors in these roles, it steals any possible jobs from disabled actors whose options are already so limited and leaves many of them to unemployment or forces them to play belittling and ableist roles. This is not something unique to the physically disabled; Forrest Gump, Abed Nadir and Will Graham are all acted by people who are not mentally disabled, despite them being major mentally disabled characters.

Abed Nadir is significant, however, in that he is an autistic person of colour, a stark contrast to the usual white poster boy for autism. Characters like him are much needed in media; disabled people of colour need to be given representation and a voice. This can of course be improved upon by casting disabled people of colour in these roles. But as long as white, cisgender, heterosexual men continue to be the vast majority of disabled people to be shown in major shows and movies, further marginalised disabled people will continue to be denied this needed voice. As well as an opportunity to represent themselves accurately as R J Mitte and Peter Dinklage have done.

There is also the worrying trend of erasing a character’s disability altogether. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) was included in the list above, and yet people who have only watched the Hunger Games movies may be confused as to why he was included. In the Hunger Games books, Peeta is an amputee from the end of the first book and uses a cane for a while as well as a prosthetic leg.

…it is made clear early on that abled people are the norm and the only disabled people are white, cisgender, heterosexual and male and often exist solely as a moral lesson or inspiration to a main abled character.

In the movies, this was completely removed, despite it being a large budget film that could have easily have created a convincing prosthetic leg, or even cast a disabled actor from the start. Similarly, the avox, a group of mute servants in the Capitol, were completely removed from the Hunger Games movies, despite them playing a large role in Katniss’ story in the book series. Also, Peeta is not the only disabled character who suddenly isn’t disabled in transitions between works; in the New 52 by DC, major disabled character Barbara Gordon is suddenly granted mobility again, thus erasing a massive role model for disabled girls and furthering the lack of them in fiction.

This continuing erasure of disabled characters, as well as the lack of diverse representation of characters and the casting of abled actors over their disabled co-workers, leads to a lack of understanding and knowledge about disabled people. Not only that, but disabled people themselves, especially women, LGBTQIAP+ people, and people of colour, are left without any respectful representation in media.

Children in these groups especially have no role models to look up to or to understand themselves or to help to see themselves as a part of society. Instead, it is made clear early on that abled people are the norm and the only disabled people are white, cisgender, heterosexual and male and often exist solely as a moral lesson or inspiration to a main abled character.

Disabled people need to be viewed as the diverse group that they are and this needs to be reflected in the stories that are shown in the media. Write disabled non binary people. Write disabled Romani people. Write disabled trans women. Write disabled bisexual people. Write a real disabled person.